Walking out of a packed screening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why these Marvel superhero movies draw me back to the multiplex so consistently. I don’t read the comic books from which the franchise sprung, and I haven’t loved all of the preceding films.
What makes movies like Captain America: The Winter Soldier so appealing isn’t their story arcs, which I usually can’t keep up with. It’s not the action sequences, which increasingly make me feel like I’m watching someone else play a video game. It’s the sense that Captain America and his comrades are just here to give us a good time. They don’t let themselves get too dark and moody over the state of the world today, the way Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did. They understand that we come to superhero movies to get away from real life, and then allow us to do so for a few entertaining hours. No more, no less.
That being said, the character of Captain America is a little more layered than he was in his last outing, 2011’s The First Avenger. Having been frozen in an iceberg in 1942, only to be thawed and resurrected in the modern world, he awakens to find most of the people he fought for dead or dying. It’s a unique premise (albeit a very comic-book one) that makes for some amusing fish-out-of-water moments. 80’s film buffs, keep your ears peeled for a witty reference midway through.
The titular Winter Soldier is a somewhat disappointing addition, a one-note villain who’s more cardboard than cartoon. But Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is still a strong, independent heroine who kicks as much butt as Captain America, if not more. She deserves her own movie.
Since it bears the title Captain America, the film tries say something meaningful about the state of the nation today. Yet the dialogue about the post-9/11 “freedom versus security” feels tacked on. The Winter Soldier is at its best when it accepts its identity as a goofy entertaining action adventure and doesn’t try too hard to be topical.